Harper Lee, whose novel To Kill a Mockingbird touched the hearts and helped shape the history of a nation, has died. Ms. Lee, who was 89, died in her sleep in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala.
Mockingbird, published in 1960, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and has since sold more than 40 million copies. The 1962 film based on the book, starring Gregory Peck as the heroic lawyer Atticus Finch, won three Oscars and is still considered a classic.
Mockingbird is ranked as the novel most frequently read by American students in grades 9 through 12. It was named the best novel of the 20th century in a Library Journal poll of American librarians, and in 2006 British librarians named it the No. 1 book people should read before they die. (The Bible came in second.)
The book skillfully combines a charmingly humorous account of small-town Southern life in the 1930s with a stark morality tale about the trial of a black man unjustly accused of the rape of a white woman. It has inspired generations, from untold numbers of lawyers and civil rights activists to fans who named their children and pets after Atticus and his daughter, Scout, the novel's child narrator.
Last year, amid considerable controversy, Ms. Lee published another book. Go Set a Watchman is the first draft of the book that she would revise extensively into Mockingbird. Her first book made Ms. Lee a wealthy woman, and Watchman, which has sold 1.6 million copies, made her richer; the contents of her will should be another interesting revelation.
Ms. Lee's family issued a statement Friday saying that she "passed away in her sleep early this morning. Her passing was unexpected. She remained in good basic health until her passing."
Family spokesman Hank Conner, Ms. Lee's nephew, said: "This is a sad day for our family. America and the world knew Harper Lee as one of the last century's most beloved authors. We knew her as Nelle Harper Lee, a loving member of our family, a devoted friend to the many good people who touched her life, and a generous soul in our community and our state. We will miss her dearly."
The family says that, as Ms. Lee requested, a private funeral service will be held.
Her mourners, though, will number in the millions.
Ms. Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, the basis for the "tired old town" of Maycomb in Mockingbird. Nelle Harper Lee was known to family and friends as Nelle (pronounced Nell) — the name of her maternal grandmother, Ellen, spelled backward. Like Atticus, her father, A.C. Lee, was a lawyer and state legislator. Her mother, Frances Finch Lee, was emotionally fragile and sometimes hospitalized for mental illness. Nelle was the youngest of their four children.
One of her childhood friends was author Truman Capote, who lived with relatives next door to the Lees for several years. Tampa author Greg Neri has written a book for young readers about that friendship. Tru & Nelle will be published on March 1. (An interview with Neri about the book is at tbtim.es/wk8, and in Sunday's Latitudes section, which was printed before Ms. Lee's death.)
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On Friday, Neri said, he was on the way to the post office to mail a copy of the book to Ms. Lee when he heard the news.
"Having lived with her in my head for the last two years," he wrote in a message, "I'm saddened by the fact that she will never see my book about her childhood. There is no question of the impact she's had on the world and, particularly, on the young people of this world. For many, it was the first time they were exposed to the dark forces of racism in this country. The fact that she grew up in the Deep South surrounded by Jim Crow and was brave enough to tell it as it was at so early an age is remarkable. She may have only done one major feat in her life but what a feat it was. She deserved to rest on her laurels. Now may she rest in peace."
Bestselling author Michael Connelly, who also lives in Tampa, in 2012 won the second annual Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction for his novel The Fifth Witness. On Friday he posted a photo on Facebook of the congratulatory note Ms. Lee sent him.
In an email, Connelly wrote, "Reading To Kill a Mockingbird really set the stage for me as a reader. It was a jumping off point where I started reading for myself and looking for similar stories where a man of conviction risks himself and those close to him in order to do the right thing. I hope I have written a few of those kinds of stories too."
Ms. Lee, who attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala., as a freshman, transferred the next year to the University of Alabama, where she wrote and became editor of the campus literary magazine. After studying to be a lawyer like her father and older sister, she left the university before graduating, heading to New York to become a writer, as Capote already had done.
She worked as an airlines reservation clerk in New York City during the early 1950s, writing on the side. Finally, with a loan from friends, she quit to write full time, and the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird reached its publisher, J.B. Lippincott, in 1957.
After extensive revision, Mockingbird was published in 1960. Early on, Ms. Lee reveled in the success of the book and the film based on it, posing for photos on the movie set with Peck and Mary Badham, the girl who portrayed Scout, and making public appearances.
By the late 1960s, Ms. Lee began to decline interviews and stopped commenting on her work, eventually withdrawing from public view. She had a robust social life in New York and Monroeville; she simply chose not to be a celebrity. Although at first she spoke of working on other books after Mockingbird, for many years she insisted she would publish no more.
She did make occasional forays into the spotlight. In 2007, she agreed to attend a White House ceremony at which she received a Presidential Medal of Honor. Around the same time, she wrote a rare published piece for O, The Oprah Magazine about how she became a reader as a child in a Depression-era Alabama town, and remained one. "Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books," she wrote.
In Alabama, she continued to share a home with her older sister, lawyer Alice Lee. After suffering a stroke in 2007, Harper Lee lived in a Monroeville nursing home until her death.
Alice Lee, who for decades oversaw her sister's finances and legal affairs, died at age 103 in November 2014. Less than three months later, through attorney Tonja Carter, who had been a member of Alice Lee's law firm, Harper Lee announced the publication of Go Set a Watchman.
Pitched by HarperCollins as a new Harper Lee book and published in July 2015, Watchman turned out to be the 1957 first draft of the book that had become Mockingbird. Watchman depicts Scout as a young adult and Atticus as a racist who denounces the Supreme Court's ruling that school segregation was unconstitutional and describes blacks as unfit to enjoy full equality.
Despite negative reaction from critics and readers and questions about how much Ms. Lee had participated in its publication, Watchman, according to Nielsen BookScan, sold 1.6 million copies, making it the top selling print adult fiction book in 2015.
Whatever the eventual fate of Watchman, however, Mockingbird remains Harper Lee's masterpiece. It is not universally loved or admired; the great Southern fiction writer Flannery O'Connor famously wrote of it, "I think for a child's book, it does all right." Other critics have dinged it for sentimentality, stereotyping, melodrama, racism, reverse racism — even for lionizing lawyers.
But it endures. The novel is a master class in effective storytelling, and Scout's narrative voice is among the most memorable in American fiction.
Perhaps what's most amazing about Mockingbird is how much of it, 56 years after its publication and about 80 years after its events, seems urgent and contemporary. The theme of racial injustice embodied in Atticus' defense of Tom Robinson is still among our nation's largest and most vexing issues. That's not all — the book raises questions about how we treat the mentally ill like Boo Radley, whom Scout literally brings into the light. And then there's Scout herself, a budding feminist in overalls and an inspiration to every girl who has rejected the notion she ought to just wear a pretty dress and keep her mouth shut.
As Atticus tells Scout, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Readers can thank Harper Lee for letting us walk around in Scout's.
Information from Times wires was used in this report. Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.